Packed tightly together, forming a gently shuffling circle, they rest, waiting. The African sun burns at its zenith – a piercing white-orange in turquoise sky. A trunk sways and an eyelid bats downwards, as they shift beneath the wide branches of a gnarled acacia tree.
Sheltering from this assault of heat and light, the elephants huddle under the scant protection offered by the tree. Dust clings to their grey-brown skin, as the mixture of shade and sunshine dapples their broad backs.
Almost hidden from sight, a smaller trunk swings a rhythm of its own; legs more tottery than the others scrape the flattened grass that has been trodden into dirt. A pair of wide eyes looks out from a forest of legs. This young elephant surveys the world from beneath an umbrella of leathery protection. A caring trunk extends downwards and strokes its low back – reassuring, yet controlling.
Suddenly, I hear thudding footsteps to my left. There is a low, crashing rasp and a series of powerful exhalations. I turn to look at the source of this rumbling commotion. Two young bulls are locked in an aggressive display of testosterone-fuelled jousting. Their tusks crossed, they sway as they slowly tussle.
Bizarrely – at odds with this macho display – an errant trunk flicks slowly outwards, coming to rest in the mouth of the opponent. For a moment they pause together like this, before backing slowly away. The joust is over. I wonder if this is an underhand tactic – the elephant equivalent of foul play.
However, what amazes me more than the sight of these under-trunk tactics is the sheer number of elephants that surround me. I’m in Tanzania, a country that recently lost 60% of its elephants in just four bloody years. But Tarangire National Park doesn’t seem to have got the memo – some of its herds number up to 300 elephants.
I turn my head to take in every direction; I look further out over the rich, green grasses that are punctuated by tusk-scratched baobabs and patches of brick-red dust. Everywhere I look, there are elephants. Some are unmoving, relaxed. Others continue on a slow amble towards the mud and water of the Tarangire River.
Of course, the reality is not quite as paradisiacal as it seems. Tarangire’s elephants are under threat. They have escaped the rampant slaughter that has affected the larger parks, particularly Selous and Ruaha, but remain hunted animals.
And I know, in part, why this bloodshed has been kept at bay. As my eyes rest on every animal, they cast a protective gaze – a gaze that simply does not exist in the vast, unvisited parks of southern Tanzania. The eyes of tourists are valuable weapons in the fight against poaching – almost as valuable as their wallets.
The need for tourist eyes and money is a brutal truth. No matter how much we romanticise elephants and their majestic, intelligent nature, we keep killing them. Tourism places a value on these, otherwise meaningless, romantic notions. Every pound, dollar or Tanzanian schilling spent in a park like Tarangire gives its wildlife value. And it gives the park rangers funds with which to fight the war – and it is a war – against ivory poachers.
But tourism, economics and bloody realities aside, the romantic inside of me wishes this were not the case. As I cast my gaze back towards the young eyes that hide amongst the forest of thick legs, I smile. The beauty of new life is captivating, as is the intelligent gaze of a creature that we respect so much, but seem to value so little.
One day there may be no elephants left. But for now there are. They roam the grasslands, copses and hillsides of Tarangire as if the apocalypse were not upon them. They clash their precious, cursed tusks and tend their young in blissful ignorance. Seize the chance to see them before the crash of ivory on ivory and raucous trumpeting are mere sounds of the past.